The Cambodian government has demolished a facility built by the United States on the country’s largest Naval base, Ream Naval Base. As reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the demolition took place sometime around 10th September and was confirmed as per the satellite images collected on October 1. It seems the debt trapped Cambodia has no option in the face of their Chinese benefactor’s demands.
The facility was one of the several US-funded facilities at the Cambodian Naval Base. As per earlier reports, these facilities were to be relocated as Cambodia struck a deal with China, providing Beijing access to the Ream Naval Base. Cambodia had denied any secret deal with China in 2019 and even now the Cambodian PM told a pro-establishment news site Fresh News, “No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution.”
However, these recent actions prove that the deal has certainly been struck between Cambodia and China. Earlier, the suspicions of US authorities grew after the Cambodian government refused US economic assistance to repair these facilities, which Phnom Penh itself had requested, reported in the Wall Street Journal. No doubt having a Chinese Naval presence in the Gulf of Thailand will provide it with the incalculable strategic ability to assert dominance in the contested South China Sea as well as play a coercive role in the internal matters of ASEAN if and when needed.
Pentagon has raised its concerns and has asked for an explanation from the Cambodian government, stating, “We have concerns that razing the facility may be tied to Cambodia government plans for hosting People’s Republic of China (PRC) military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base”.
The Chinese belligerence & aggressive actions have made Chinese intentions clear and have made an enemy out of the whole world. Most of the countries have understood the functioning of Chinese debt diplomacy. But countries like Cambodia & Laos could not calculate or the leaderships were complacent in selling their countries out to China. The debt to GDP ratio of Cambodia and Laos (2019) is 30.09% and 58% respectively.
The Chinese are destroying the economies of the Lower Mekong Basin (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam) and at the same time providing big loans to these states. By this Beijing is trying to make them subservient and debt trapped so that these nations become extended provinces of China for all practical purposes. China has built eleven Dams in the Upper Mekong Basin and is holding the lives of 70 million people on its wish and whim.
Among the Lower Mekong Basin countries, Vietnam and Thailand are large economies and are wary of China to get trapped into Beijing’s geopolitical games. However, Laos has already lost and in many ways has become an extension of the greater Chinese zone of influence and now Cambodia seems to be heading on the same route.
This cannot be afforded either by the ASEAN member nations or by the pro-liberal international order countries. The ASEAN as an organization will face a sovereignty crisis if it does not take any action in these scenarios. South-East Asian countries need to remember that they have had a long spell of instability, insurgency, infighting and that brought nothing more than misery to the region. The only way the region can succeed is by being together and balancing any external influence that compromises with the larger regional sovereignty.
The USA cannot and will not allow China to chip away its hard-earned influence in the region. China’s sole influence in the region will choke the free and open international waters for trade and commerce and thus, all the countries which are interested in the open Indo-Pacific need to come together to counter any such actions and support the USA.
In its upcoming meet, the QUAD members India, Japan, Australia and the USA need to work out a plan and keep these incidents at the forefront. For the open Indo-Pacific ASEAN centrality cannot be questioned and any geographical gain for Beijing is a loss for the Free Trade and Liberal International Order.